Lessons from Fierce Conversations 

This is the first in a sequence of posts which I’ll call “Lessons from…” in which I’ll outline how a range of texts I’ve been reading inform my thinking. Some of the lessons are, I think, useful reminders of things I knew already, some build on previous thinking, whilst others are new insights. It’s also likely that some of the ideas I reflect on are things you’ll think are just common sense or perhaps not even worth noting. If that’s likely to bother you, I should stop reading now if I were you. However, if there’s something you disagree with, then please let me know your thoughts.

To begin with, I’ve recently been reading Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott. It’d been recommended alongside High Challenge, Low Threat by Mary Myatt, Leadership Matters by Andy Buck and Radical Candour by Kim Scott as a starting point for putting together a framework for the development of leadership in an academy.

Fierce Conversations is sold as “a way of conducting business, an attitude, a way of life.” Quite a claim. It outlines a range of conversation frameworks which people can have – both internal monologues or dialogues with colleagues, bosses, loved ones or clients.

Susan Scott, the author, has worked with CEOs and other leaders in some of the world’s biggest organisations across a wide range of countries and has set up the company Fierce.inc to further this work.

Although the title of the book might suggest a level of brutality, the fierceness really lies in the honesty which Scott requires the people she works with, her readers (and presumably her family) to have with themselves and the people they are connected to – at work and in their everyday lives.

There are two main conversational frameworks in the book.

The first follows seven steps and is similar in pattern to a number of other, frequently used formats of coaching conversation. The seven steps are:

  1. What’s the most important issue we need to be talking about today?
  2. Describe the issue? What’s going on?
  3. How is this currently affecting you? Who else is it currently affecting and how?
  4. What are the implications of nothing changes?
  5. How have you helped create this situation or issue?
  6. What is the ideal outcome and, when this is resolved, what difference will it make?
  7. What is the highest impact action you can take to change things? What are you committing to do and by when? When should I follow up on this with you?

The second is a further seven phase structure for a potentially difficult or challenging conversation with someone else. The seven steps here are:

  1. Define the issue
  2. Select an illustrative example of the issue
  3. Describe your emotions about the issue
  4. Clarify what is at stake if the issue is not solved
  5. Identify the part you play in the issue
  6. Indicate you wish to resolve the issue
  7. Invite the other person to respond

These kinds of frameworks are helpful in establishing principles. My experience is that those who are best at using them grasp these principles make them their own and can improvise around them, like great blues musicians.

Here’s a picture of lots of fancy mirrors to use as a metaphor for reflecting on who you are

Lesson 1. You have to be honest with yourself first.

In order to get the most out of both conversational frameworks, Scott argues that you have to be willing to confront what the main issues are in the organisation or part of the organisation you are responsible for. If you try to cover up or hide away the issues from yourself and/or from others, then the issues will not be resolved and whatever it is that you’re responsible for won’t flourish. In a school context, this issue could be anything from someone in your faculty producing a shoddy medium term plan to missed deadlines or persistent lateness to work on the part of a long term supply teacher.

Lesson 2. Trust requires honesty

Why are teachers not trusted by leaders?”

“Why are leaders not trusted by Ofsted and the DfE?”

“Why are the government not trusted by the electorate?”

We inhabit a world where we often experience or feel a deficit of trust and yet we often contribute to this too. Sometimes we expect trust to be given automatically yet we are often slow to trust others. When I consider the people I trust most, there is a close match with those people who communicate most honestly with me at the appropriate moment. Scott identifies that the way we deliver the truth – what you say, when, how and to whom – are equally important, but without truth and honesty trust is built on very flimsy foundations.

Lesson 3. Know the gaps between the values you claim to hold and the behaviours you exhibit. You get what you tolerate.

If you’ve been on any kind of leadership training, you’ll have heard that vision and values are vitally important in being a leader. You’ll possibly even written your own vision and defined the values you hold important. A key difference between the best leaders I’ve worked with and the worst is that the most effective leaders have been able to see where the organisation they run falls short of the vision they have for it and where the values they claims to hold aren’t being met. Having done this, they take action to close these gaps. As schools are built on relationships, this invariably requires them to have one or more conversations of the kind Scott outlines. Where leadership has been less effective in the schools I’ve experienced in the now distant past, there has been a disparity between what leaders have said the school is like and the reality. Due to this, the leaders have lost their credibility , integrity and the trust of other members of staff.

Lesson 4. Implementing change effectively requires an understanding of the impact on the different individuals or groups involved.

To implement a plan that affects the whole organisation, which is what school leaders do, Scott argues that you need to understand the way it will impact on the whole organisation. You need to know what processes are genuinely being used on the ground. Scott calls this the “ground truth” and contrasts it with the “official truth” – what leaders say happens on the ground. This is clearly linked with the other three lessons above as you can be honest but deluded. Again, clarity of communication plays a vital part here. However, this also highlights the need for school leaders to be out and about experiencing what the school is really like rather than what they believe it should be like.

Lesson 5. Sometimes you need to adapt and react quickly – especially when implementing change.

Scott highlights that, when your plan collides with reality, the plan may need to change. Sometimes our circumstances or the circumstances of others alter in a way that means we need to amend our plan. Sometimes we find glitches in the plan or, in the case of schools, students find the loopholes in systems we naively believed student-proof. This can be frustrating when you’ve spent a long time preparing your strategy, but makes school leadership simultaneously challenging and exciting.

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